What Ageism Looks Like

Why are we apologizing?

March 31, 2023

“I’ve been listening to all this for a while, and it just gets worse. The money we live on comes at the expense of younger people. It doesn’t matter if a deadly virus kills us, because we were going to die soon anyway. We’re draining the health care system, so we should pay extra for health care.

I don’t get it. I’ve paid taxes all my life, and I still pay. I’ve worked inside and outside the home. I contribute to my family, my neighbourhood, and my community. Why do I have to apologize?”

Does this look familiar? Even worse, does it feel familiar? It’s what ageism sounds like. It’s one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination, and it isn’t one single thing, but a package. Let’s look at what’s inside.

  • How we think – the stereotypes. When we picture older adults as incapable, dependent, somehow not quite with it, that’s ageist. When we picture people in Generation X, Y, Z, or some other letter as lazy and entitled, that’s also ageist. Either way, we’re not treating people as individuals, but as stereotypes.
  • How we feel – the prejudices. Older adults don’t all have the same needs, preferences, or capabilities. Yet policies often presume they all want the same things. Also, when something doesn’t feel right, an older adult is more likely to be told it’s just “ageing” and they should get used to it. A younger adult with the same complaints may be listened to more closely.
  • Discrimination – the actions. Here is where it gets particularly dangerous. Workplace and health care policies and conditions often discriminate. Just think about the people who died in long-term care homes not only from COVID but, shockingly, from basic neglect. The people who tried to care for them were treated just as badly. Personal support workers had to fight for equipment, decent wages, and sick time.

In less than 10 years, about one-quarter of Canada’s population will be at least 65 years old. A National Institute on Ageing survey found that nearly one-third of Canadians 50 years or older had experienced ageism, with people who were born outside Canada experiencing it most often. It happens in the workplace, the street, and stores or restaurants. It’s particularly striking that 20% of Canadians aged 80 years and older experienced it most often in hospitals and other health care settings.

Gradually, we are taking notice. The World Health Organization is working on a global campaign to combat ageism. In Canada, a forum of federal, provincial, and territorial ministers is holding consultations. These are welcome steps, but real change depends on all of us.

What can you do?

  • Look first at yourself and your own prejudices (we all have them). Are you making assumptions you didn’t even recognize? What can you do about them?
  • Think about what you hear. Do people call someone “dear” or “granny” when they don’t even know that person? Do they say someone looks good or seems smart “for their age”?
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up. When you see or hear ageism, let people know about it. They may simply be unaware.
  • Hold politicians and officials to account. Notice how they talk and what they do about older adults, and tell them what they need to do.